Every Victory Day in Bangladesh is a time of national rejoicing and remembrance. It is justifiably so, given the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy during the country’s liberation war. But this year’s celebrations of the Victory Day last Sunday had an ominous ring to them. For weeks before the celebrations, the country had plunged into violence and near-total anarchy. The weeks ahead threaten to be just as tumultuous. At the heart of the current turmoil is the country’s deeply divisive politics, represented by the personal rivalry between the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia. But the political storm that has clouded this year’s celebrations has much to do with the bloody history of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. For the first time, a government in Dhaka seems to be determined to put ‘war criminals’ of 1971 on trial. Ms Wajed cannot have been unaware of the consequences of this hugely controversial move. Many of these ‘war criminals’ had not only been protected by several regimes in Dhaka but they also held important posts in political parties, the army and the country’s diplomatic service. For Ms Wajed though, not concluding the trials and punishing the guilty amount to condoning their crimes and to dishonouring the martyrs and other victims of the liberation war. She obviously believes that the political risks that the trials carry are well worth taking.
For Ms Wajed’s opponents though, the current political turmoil is not about history, but about her ‘misrule’. They accuse her of imposing an ‘undeclared emergency’ in the country aimed at silencing all criticism. Recent events in Bangladesh do not quite suggest that this really is the case there. The Opposition parties have been free to protest and agitate. In fact, the latest Opposition-sponsored violence across the country would suggest that the protests are increasingly turning ugly. The Opposition’s current campaign began with its demand that the next parliamentary polls be held under a ‘caretaker government’ rather than under Ms Wajed. The Opposition has every right to question the government’s move on this issue. But Ms Zia should have used parliament to win her argument. It is a major issue but violent street fights are not going to clinch it. This Victory Day should have been a time for Bangladesh’s leaders to pause and ponder where the country is headed.